Managing bedtimes with a baby and a toddler

Getting a toddler to bed can be tricky enough without adding a baby into the mix.
Getting a toddler to bed can be tricky enough without adding a baby into the mix. Photo: Getty Images

"Is bribery okay?"

Amy, the mum of a newborn and a three-year-old, was discussing her toddler's bedtime. As Amy's husband is a FIFO worker he wasn't home to help, so Amy was often torn between helping her toddler to settle at bedtime and attending to her baby.

One night, after stories and cuddles for her three-year-old and needing to feed the baby, Amy bribed her toddler to stay in bed and go to sleep with the promise of a 'lolly' in the morning. The 'lolly' was actually a gummy vitamin.

After a few nights, Amy's older daughter quite happily snuggled down and forgot about the morning bribe.

I reassured Amy by asking her my usual questions: "Is it safe? Is it respectful? Did it work without stress for you or your little one?"

As parents, the reality is that sometimes we get desperate and think on our feet. The solutions we come up with aren't always politically correct or according to the 'rule books', but if they save some stress and frustration for us and for our child, we can relax.

Getting a toddler to bed can be tricky enough without adding a baby into the mix, and it can be a huge concern for parents who are expecting a new baby – especially if you have a younger toddler who needs a lot of support at bedtime.

There's no point being harsh and pushing your toddler beyond her capacity to cope when she's already tired, as this can result in tears and clinginess and more bed-time delays. Nor is it kind to suddenly change the rules when you have lovingly parented your little one to sleep up until now.

And just in case you're considering bribery, remember that it won't work with a toddler who is hardly verbal, let alone mature enough to have the cognitive skills or impulse control to cooperate with postponed 'promises'. Besides, support at bedtime is a genuine need for most little ones: consider, from a toddler's perspective, when they fall asleep, they are temporarily leaving you. So the need for you to 'stay with me' can be due to separation anxiety, not simply a form of manipulation.

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Put simply, your toddler can't simply 'grow up' to make life more convenient for you, so it's better to try and see bedtime as an investment in your relationship with your child.

If you are wondering (or worried) how you'll manage bedtimes with a newborn and toddler, here are some tips from real parents.

Make changes gradually, with love

Baby steps at a pace your toddler can manage will be the most successful way to make lasting changes. It's best to start making changes (from cot to bed, or getting partners more involved with the bedtime routine) at least three months before you have your next baby.

Victoria is 37 weeks pregnant with her second baby, and the mum of a 21-month-old. She has been implementing gentle changes over the last few months.

"Initially I sat on a stool and patted him until he went to sleep. Then we started getting Dad to do bedtime books and I just went in when it was sleep time," she says. "We've found having a little debrief about 'what did we do today' helps him calm down, then he has a special toy, we tuck his blanket in, tell him that it's sleepy time, and then every night I give him a reason why I need to leave ('Mummy needs a drink', 'Mummy needs to have dinner') and promise that I will come back, even if he is asleep.

"It all seems to have come together in the last week or so; he seems to have gone through a big developmental leap and now he is nattering on about the concepts of 'later' and 'come back'."        

Kyra, a mum of two little ones, made changes differently with each of her children: "I moved my son to a toddler bed at 21 months and would sit next to him in a tub chair till he fell asleep (he didn't need patting or anything else, just me there). He went from being cuddled to sleep every night to doing this in three nights.

"With my second son, I moved him to a mattress on the floor at 15 months so I could lay with him when he needed me."

Stagger bedtimes

You don't need to be rigid about bedtime, but a gentle rhythm with a predictable routine encourages cooperation and will help your toddler feel secure. Rather than trying to settle a baby and a toddler simultaneously, it can work well to get the baby settled first, then devote your attention to your toddler. 

Danni, mum of a five-week-old, cuddles her 20-month-old daughter to sleep. She says it's hard but it's their "special time".

"Her bedtime is after our newborn's. and her nap time is when he is sleeping too. I found that when the baby arrived, she wanted me more, so having that time alone with her is helping her adjust," she says.

Snuggle them both

If your baby doesn't yet have a predictable bed-time or needs to cluster feed during the evening, so there isn't a break to attend to your toddler separately, it can work to simply all snuggle together on the big bed. 

Jessica has a two-year-old and a newborn, and is still recovering from a c-section. "We lay in bed together to go to sleep at night, then my husband transfers our toddler to her cot once she is asleep," she says. "I enjoy the rest and I can breastfeed the newborn if he needs. There are no tears, so it's a win for us all."

Pinky McKay is an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and best-selling  author of Sleeping Like a Baby, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying, Parenting by Heart and Toddler Tactics. She is holding baby sleep and toddler seminars for parents in Melbourne on January 17. For information and bookings see bookings.pinkymckay.com.